Boxboy has been published by Rust + Moth
parachuted at twilight
into our garden
of good evil.
It was spider season,
and he & I roamed fairytale streets,
conspiring to destroy reality
and weave a universe.
In real life
we were besieged
and worst of all,
but with his grubby bedroom
as HQ of Creation,
we freestyled scripts past sunsets,
and worlds hatched down the walls,
while episodes coalesced:
characters debated from cradle to ash,
civilizations tipped over
and an immortal celebrity
realized he was the Deity;
first one city filled all galaxies,
then one mind.
were in that place
we could only reach
Spiders sewed potholes shut
and sheathed the city in lace;
it was the Year of the Weaving,
and the twenty-one years before
had been really fucking long:
I’d kept my hands in fists and
crossed bridges without reaching land;
but now I blared nonstop free jazz
on my throat-trumpet,
grew a threadbare beard
to embrace ugliness,
and believed in everything we did,
and nothing else,
Binging on books,
he lazed with a permanent smirk,
but always hit with instant wit,
ate like shit
yet had Botticelli ringlets
and cheekbones like knuckles
under ice-moon eyes,
and deep below sunrise
coolly composed razor-glass prose
magnitudes greater than mine
though I tried much harder;
and oh, how my envy
I thought about him
And one insomniac afternoon
of a necessary day,
in the high summer of youth,
amid a fever symphony of dreams,
he sprawled on my ramshackle sofa,
scheming yet another killer scene;
and waking up in place I witnessed
loose light crown his crow angles,
and forbidden words jumped lips—
for after 30 hours awake,
I could see freely,
love without flinching,
worship without remembering
I needed to be king.
In a weightless metropolis
spiders spun silk fortresses
with firefly chandeliers;
and from our separate nests,
manic with happiness,
we stepwise unmasked
our secret past:
like, when mistaken for a couple,
how queerly we’d chuckled;
or the night we raced two girls
back to my place,
to talk to each other;
or when he ditched our city suddenly
and I stranded my damsel
and shadowed him
just to stay inside us.
forced to rot in closets,
had tainted our relations
and poisoned all our toilings;
but now the dark stick stuck
in the spokes of our luck
and beaming like projectors
of him and me as we,
two male mothers
unbent in unhoped heaven,
spinning mazes from air
in a constant conversation
that would itself be
an act of creation.
Toward the end of our universe,
in an unwritten script,
a cartoon spaceship pursued by God
absconds beyond all stars,
its crew of two
talking in the dark;
yet when the lights arc on,
the two are no longer characters
there would come an evening,
a room, a bed, an hour
in each other’s arms,
out of all we’d promised
to ourselves and each other,
one trip to a different world
that never really existed:
for in that crawling dark
we finally spoke
not of knitted cities
but of ourselves—
and nothing fit.
With one hand I invited,
with the other I pushed away,
teeth hit teeth,
and his silences grew darker,
the subtle fangs sharper,
the smiles slick & sicker,
and the hidden venom
and the spiders
or the spiders
caught each other,
just two flies in disguise
forced by fear
and propelled by pride
into absurd verbal brawling,
brisk back- & frontstabbing,
a bitter diabolic break-up,
and an aftermath of barren
and the wilting and wastage
of a universe.
There’s freedom in truth,
but I wanted the dream.
It was the Century of Hunger,
and we scaled night mountains;
spotlights painted spirals in mist,
and a high red light signaled above,
telling me to look up…
God and I broke up when I was eleven;
I didn’t like the way he talked to me.
Religion is the curse
laid on the living
by the dead.
So now it’s just me,
a puddle of pink shivers
laughed at by skulls,
and I flatten my ape hand
against mindless light
and watch blood feed flesh
through an aging machine
that built itself
and generated me
to pilot it,
encrypted in every cell,
DNA a four-letter word
scripted by a unifying explosion
inside a birth engine
whose own genes were born
through countless perishings
in a manifold lineage
in which every dictator,
lion and portobello,
linden and paramecium,
is my distant relative,
in the all-embracing
fractal of life
I’m just another tip
yearning through my excerpt,
every shooting second
now time is a landscape
through which I bear the hairy cross
of my body, wagging my fist
at the bureaucratic sky,
The light sways,
frilling out like a cosmic king’s
Every honeydew morning is stolen
from the saliva-jeweled jaws of death,
and the sparrows sing hallelujah,
and there isn’t even anybody
Water snakes hiss in the walls.
The day ruffles its frigid blue pages
until I peel myself from bed
to harvest a few shards of light
from the horizons over my desk.
Hours fold up and vanish:
Every thought’s a landscape
I fall into; every line a ledge
I cling to. I climb a page
then plunge my hand
into a candy bowl
full of ticking clocks,
my ears exhaling
The universe is a sublime torture chamber
inside which I am building a thrill park.
In a wasteland this bleak
only children play.
Up all night pulling fire from the sky,
I glance down at what the streets say about me:
Every supreme flight is also a cry of anguish.
Whatever. I stuff these few fancies in a cookie tin
and wait for salvation.
I was made of years piled up.
I was eyes falling through time.
There had been a strange but not unpleasant smell of bitter peppermint, then my mind split into a hundred minds that all slumped into darkness and drowned.
On the bed, somebody lay in my space, breathing with my lungs and seeing with my eyes, surrounded by everyday objects whose functions seemed hopelessly abstract and theoretical.
A jeweled melody slithered around.
Had music been playing all along?
This song was a favorite, but now I’d never heard it before.
Framed in a window, the penthouse of a distant high-rise resembled the top of an armored vehicle.
Then it drove away, leaving behind a steamrolled sky.
The music watered me until I could stand again.
The apartment and its contents had once been mine, but now they belonged to someone else, and they exuded the strangeness and hostility of all foreign possessions.
Those blind mirrors. That living ghost.
I had to get out before the owner returned.
His shoes reminded me of a pair I used to own.
They fit perfectly.
In the elevator’s mirrors, three copies of me imitated my expressions.
One copy gaped slackly, paralyzed by what he saw.
But I didn’t feel horrible.
I felt very far away.
It was as if I were ten meters behind my eyes.
As if my eyes were circular windows through which I glimpsed crescent rinds of reality.
I closed my eyes till the ding.
I was walking down to a harbor.
The clouds red. The water red.
All the buildings empty.
Doors angling into rooms with barred windows.
Litter beetling over sleeping streets.
There would be no one ever again.
Just me, forever.
And the one red gull that followed me shrieking.
In slow-motion I chased a single thought around the double-windowed room of my skull.
I opened my eyes every few minutes to a new display.
Briefly I saw one of my faces flattened on a car window.
A concrete orca burst up through the urbanscape and solidified as its jaws snapped shut. On its vertical flanks sprouted balconies, and in its rectangular ribcage many lights came on simultaneously.
When I released my breath, the people would return.
I held my breath till the pavement inflated.
But when I allowed in people, they were all wrong.
Like piano keys they lined the streets, and my passing plunked them.
I threw my head from side to side and the players sprang and fell, displaying exactly the features I would have imagined.
Everyone looked like someone I knew, though their faces were only many-sided origami sculptures with fewer details than some virtual characters, their noses and ears barely present, their hyperrealistic eyes aflame with visionary intensity.
An old friend leaned against a wall, staring vacantly.
Someone shuffled by with odd violence, as if fast-forwarded.
It occurred to me—with a total lack of emotion—that I might be trapped in a simulation constructed from the contents of my own consciousness.
Was that why nothing felt real?
Then a familiar smell slid into my nostrils.
Ghastly, rotten and sweet:
My brain stopped filtering reality.
All sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feelings assaulted me at once, and in all that buzzing rumbling thudding sparkling modulating droning inane brilliance, there was no spacetime to comprehend any individual corner, no handhold for any understanding.
No one could think with all that world in the way.
Every surface rushed at me, and each fractured facet reflected a pair of my panicked eyes, and my own likeness in various costumes fanned out like a glass tarot deck falling toward me.
But just before impact and explosion, the reality shards froze, stuttered, and ran in reverse, and the world unbroke like a window.
Dizzy I stepped from the curb and landed in the middle of a shallow river. Atop a bridge a ramrod figure in a gas mask, silhouetted against a flesh sun, brought up one arm and pointed at me.
I looked at the finger. The finger looked at me.
Everything became an image of itself.
I don’t remember how I was taken.
It all went by in pieces:
A window seat in a black bus.
Highways like diagrams.
Cars like icons.
Lights whipping our sides.
Checkpoints I barely registered.
Low tin buildings with white numbers.
Me slumping on a foldout chair in semi-darkness.
A cone of light widening between my legs.
The polished boots of my trainer.
Rules and regulations:
Precise times to sleep and wake.
The daily weightlifting. The chuffing through fields. The shaping of hands that at first did not close around what was offered.
The layer after layer of locked doors, each with a guard whose riddles were impossible.
I was not the only zero. There were thousands.
We ate nondescript food in silence in long halls.
But who could tell anyone apart?
There were inexplicable beatings, while I calmly searched inside my black-hole head for something that refused to come back.
There were the various guns. The knives and the grenades.
Every evening we inhaled from canisters of bitter peppermint.
And there was no one there.
Not even me.
When we enter, Oma’s gazing at the wall.
Unsmiling. Her eyes red hollows.
Opa announces that I crossed Germany to see her.
She asks for a tissue but can’t bring it to her face.
Holding up the spread square of tissue, frozen.
Opa wipes her raw nose, pulls her straight.
Her body always caves around that missing hip.
He asks, “Remember the last time you saw Stefan?”
Shrinking back, she names an event ten years past.
He starts to correct her…
But just tips the sippycup of coffee to her trembling lips.
And laughing rolls her fingers, one by one, between his own.
I suck on sweets and look out at the parking lot.
He deposits in her limp palm a rubber spikeball.
I can’t, Oma whimpers. I can’t I can’t there’s no use.
And the sunlight comes in like a memory; we sweat.
One drives till the vehicle breaks down.
Till the windows go blind.
Into the cold that neither begins nor ends.
Following his lead, she lifts one hand over her head.
Then slowly, painfully, the other hand.
And her eyes say:
rat death shit fire filth maggot mold ash.
We leave her lopsided in her wheelchair.
Once more staring at the wall.
I may be too late. I shift in the cramped seat
and my neck creaks.
I’m cornered in the clear forehead of a bus clattering down the Autobahn.
It’s midnightish, but the passengers are fielding calls or eating loud smelly things
and my neighbor (ancient, monumental and disturbed) is oozing into my space.
Surrounded, I can escape only through the window,
into the phantasmagoria. There are quadriplegic godzillas with spinning heads.
There are constellations of red eyes over the highway, haghaired shadows staring in
as we drive between their legs. There is the pillared and arching night,
majestic as only the truly cold can be, and emptier than a dead mind,
so that only some reinforced glass divides me from infinity.
But underneath infinity,
somewhere in the earthly haze of drifting realities,
is the hospital where my grandmother is falling out of her body
amid the blurry, whispering forms of people she’s created.
I might not make it: I’d waited to leave
till she regained consciousness.
Between us still
are many mountains of purple light,
entire centuries gathered in glass domes,
and a movie-marathon
of bad dreams.
Finally my subconscious disgorges
a haunted central station, and I disembark
and search dawn lots for my uncle. He’s
smoking by his car, his scraped-handsome face
inflamed. We shake hands.
“She’s awake,” he says,
and smothers his cigarette.
On the long drive he makes small talk in the
dark, till it’s bright enough for us
to see each other.
We stop in for my grandfather. Their penthouse is eerily serene
before he shouts from the bathroom, and briefly I imagine
she’s in there too, like last time, when I’d arrived early
and glimpsed them naked by the shower,
he attending her, in pink animal light—
Eve and Adam at the end of time.
At that final breakfast over sky
she’d defended death with a white smile
that did not reach the carnage of her eyes,
told me she was used up
and ready to die
while I stared at a breakfast board knifetracked
with maplines of boroughs and harbors—
tiny visions of my far home.
Now the dining room is an exhibit of a gone life:
her crutches and pill calendar, the pulped pears
in glass bowls, the walls with clumsy cartoon murals
painted by children since grown old.
I’m peeling an out-of-season chocolate egg
when my grandfather limps in,
hiding his face,
and he, who had avoided all touch,
who had been distant as a portrait,
His papery warmth.
His fragile ribs.
In all, five family members accumulate in my uncle’s car,
everyone deformed and ill in the same ways, chatting about
anything but. There is a universal queasiness.
I stare out at the ruthless canola fields.
The hospital. In deference to my grandfather
we press into the elevator. The nurses trapped with us
laugh at my uncle’s jokes. I feel like I’m drawn in charcoal
on a burlap sack; I feel poorly animated and sick.
Sick. I expect every room to be hers. Elderly patients gape out
at us thundering past, led by my grim, unspeaking grandfather
galloping on his crutches. Suddenly he wheels right
and there she is,
in a sunny yellow room,
in the furthest of three beds,
under a fiery window,
in an oxygen mask,
her eyelids disclosing two icecubes
with a sliver of my same blue.
I had hated and feared her.
She ranted over misplaced mugs,
berated the television, and hammered
and screeched at my gentle grandfather.
She was my enemy.
Now she grips his hand,
and the skin of her arm
looks like loose latex
over peeled blood oranges,
and she gives me
a sad sorry weak quarter-smile
that seems almost guilty,
as if I weren’t supposed to catch her
in the hospital.
She’d always done the talking
and from habit I wait for a greeting
that doesn’t come.
“I came on the night bus,”
I say, and describe it
trying to make her laugh,
but her snickers
are somehow pained,
and she glances at my uncle,
who leans in and whispers,
“She didn’t understand.”
I ask her about the hospital food,
but she just laughs strangely
from deep within
her sorry eyes.
I take her hand for the last
and first time,
smooth back her hair,
kiss her forehead.
I exhale galaxies in my sleep.
Behold my right hand:
its fingers are light years apart,
five pale towers
clothed in gulls and clouds.
On each fingertip sit many cities,
and in every city
I hold a minimum-wage job
where mini lords rant
about mini mistakes,
where money laughs at me,
and I trudge in no direction,
afraid that my anxiety shows.
Brushing my teeth,
I spit colors.
Behold my left hand: its fingers are scraped red,
ragged at the nails, ruby-knuckled in dishwater,
grasping, wandering lost through leg forests,
positioning tomatoes and throats.
In bed I ride my body like an airship over the past.
My legs cast long shadows over rotting continents,
sprawling kingdoms populated by pet ghosts,
distant memories drawing ever closer
to my thousand-sided eyes.
I float through music
and cleanse myself with storms.
Mountains shuffle aside
that I may view the sunrise,
then dismiss it.
The sight of our tiny, wind-slapped lives
fills me with pity.
I stumble from the shower
and get ready for work.
Night and day are like two table racquets
smacking Gerhardt back and forth,
and every contact with the blue or black paddle
ages him visibly.
At 19 Fantucci had already knocked over six banks,
and his getaway techniques had ushered in a rash
of decoys and river escapes.
By 27, Georgescu, the art thieves’ Einstein,
had swiped the Quran written in Saddam Hussein’s blood,
and inspired a generation of thirsty young criminals
to perfect the art of disguise.
At 30, Gerhardt, a self-educated expert
in forgery artists and vault explorers,
will be the first to tell you
and the other bar patrons
that he’s no genius,
but maybe if he spends enough time
designing and honing one plan,
then perhaps he could commit
one genius crime,
something everybody would notice,
and yes, in fact, he is architecting a master plan,
something deviously intricate and yet ingeniously simple,
though he needs a foolproof escape, since there are
certain seasoned detectives
who would recognize his unmistakable style
when the crime made international news.
And no, he hasn’t so much as jaywalked in years—
Gerhardt is saving himself.
Now Gerhardt’s 35.
but he still has fire
and he stays alone
because women make him weak.
If it weren’t for women
he’d have long since…
Gerhardt lifts weights daily
and is still handsome enough to be
a famous criminal, he thinks,
though a little less every month.
Across from a diner mirror,
lost in the many images of himself,
he tries to talk his way out of the maze.
But should he shave his balding head?
Gerhardt doesn’t know.
Gerhardt wanders in loose circles
pacing ruts into sidewalks
as if around the next corner
he’ll glimpse the steel idea,
the indie style he needs
for the felony to be remembered.
Surrounded by giants in the mist,
he is too proud to stand on their shoulders;
he must be original, he wants
an authentic, homemade crime,
brilliant and eccentric, a sly blow
against the received wisdom.
Perhaps something with
At 50, to top off an already legendary career,
Waszak had conned a sultan
out of an entire oil-state.
At 50, Gerhardt’s everything he sneered at.
He keeps throwing away his promise
then spends years trying to get it back
only to find himself in the same old place
saying something he said before
to people who used to listen closer.
He prays at the sites of former successes
remembering when he had tears in his eyes;
now he can’t find the feelings he pushed away,
and night and day are alternating mountains.
When he was a child, no one had said anything
about the repetition,
and being doomed to act,
how inaction is action,
and the long fall is interrupted only
by a repeating series of
55, 60, 65…
The years fold like dominos,
and Gerhardt’s an echo,
afraid of his friends,
worn by his clothes,
owned by his possessions
and bored with his obsessions.
Gerhardt performs as himself in bars,
desperately unable to stop plagiarizing
his younger self. Buy him enough whiskey,
and Gerhardt will joke that he’s still plotting
his big breakthrough, but only so he doesn’t need
to release his favorite delusions,
as if by wishing hard enough
it could all still come true…
Yeah sure, he laughs,
and the mice will eat the cat,
the snow will paint, the clouds will bark,
right, and the money melt, and the launched fist
encounter itself, the whale swim over the city,
and Atlantis turn up
in an old bathtub.
At 76, T.T. “Manta Ray” Barnoy broke
into the world’s largest stash of gold bars
only to take a selfie—a true transcendence
of petty crime, into skill for its own sake,
risking it all for a display of technical splendor,
signing eternity with a golden pen,
and had they met
the two old men would have gotten on
But Gerhardt doesn’t care. He’s
engrossed in another, bigger battle
he also must lose, but this time
he cracks wise. These days
sleep wakes him,
emptiness fills him,
and the silence speaks
Two tiny black pyramids.
Like black sugar, but with a faintly glowing core.
Supposedly I’ll be able to taste the light.
But I’m thinking too much.
Steeling myself when I should be trying to relax.
Breathe out. In.
Without letting myself worry, I put the pyramids in my mouth.
They taste like electricity.
I’m leaning over my desk, typing one-handedly.
The keys I’m pecking look like runes embedded in jello.
Already my head is hovering above my body, engines purring; time has the consistency of clear jam, and it is no simple task to keep reality integrated.
Slopping over with stars, the kitchen sink reflects the moon.
I risk the mirror.
Every face I’ll ever have flickers superimposed, the layers of selves shifting so that I wobble between young and old, with my hair spasming and flickering through different colors.
Hours coat my cheeks, minutes glop from my chin, seconds itch at my neckline…
Did I take too much?
No: don’t think that.
Cradling my left forearm in its fleecy cast, I climb up to my loftbed and hump awkwardly beneath the covers. Only my head protrudes from the warm cotton sea.
What did I come up here trying not to think about?
The ceiling’s hung with a zebra-waved cloth that ripples and pulses jellyfishily, the inky black stripes scurrying over smoky white stripes, mesmerizing me with undulations like liquid math.
I’m forgetting something important.
What was I supposed to remember?
The ceiling is distant as a great-great-grandfather. Immensity envelops my tiny form and yet I am gigantic, stretched like a rubber band over thirty years, with my feet in a different era than my head.
And something somewhere is rotten.
It’s hard to explain.
Sometimes randomly the rot recedes and my head floats free, spinning featherwise through sunnier realms.
But mostly my body is a sack of gibbering red goblins laughing fire, with the broken wrist a raw chicken wing folded against my chest, its stiffly limp fingers like thawing frozen shit.
Looks like I’ve fallen into my own trap, again.
No matter which way I turn my thoughts, they darken, wither, and mutate into dreadful crackling forests of mocking laughter too bitter to bear, and all while I’m being sucked to taffy in a neverending spiral into myself.
Me: the white zero of ego: swirling drain all the world empties into.
Whole cities pour through me, and the sun’s stuck in my throat.
Just to stand up I’d have to reverse the entire flow of the universe.
I crawl over and open the window.
The lampstroked night, shaking inkdrops from its shiny black pelt, leans in close to inspect me, exhaling frost that trickles blue and soothing into my lungs.
It’s vast out.
A queenly evergreen wrings her hard hair over the wiry hedge-bones. Beyond her, a stately-eyed brick schoolhouse with white brows of ornamented plasterwork sweats in his own spotlights.
Out there everything is breathing, powering up.
In here it’s all grimy spiders and greasy pans, my mind stabbing itself from all directions, and decaying thoughts hanging above me, drying on strings.
It’s obvious I have to go out.
But… is that really a good idea?
Then I’m hunched in two jackets on a streetcorner just a few meters under the sleeping sky, and there is no going back. This is too important…
Bars surround me.
Within their glass bellies, flesh gargoyles yell and cough and guffaw, gnaw bones or suck on burning roots, breathing in slow watery pink music—squashed hiphop, spiraling funk, itchy jazz.
Past the bars rises a square church tower like a middle finger flipping off the ghostly sky, which has only one enormous cloud-crowd riven with crevices, crazy jigsaw seams offering slim glimpses of a night so black it looks heavy.
Whenever someone draws near, I floor my gaze to conceal my gemstone pupils and corkscrew grin—
And all the flaming, unfurling magnificence of the night fizzles, dumped out.
I just have this feeling that if I am not exceedingly careful and in control, if I don’t plot every second, if I let my guard down and unlock my fists, even for a breath, something terrible and irrevocable will occur.
I sit cross-legged above the canal.
Dangling lanterns ring luminal bells, singing in a language of light.
Upon the black water hangs my graven image, the familiar pale round face melting into itself, staying in one place and yet forever eroding and losing its contours, an enduring frame of reference in a dissolving world.
Or is that the moon?
Yup—just the moon, the pounding and cascading moon, a cataracted eye fizzling and popping against the rippling cheek of the sky, doubled in the water, quadrupled in windows.
I stand up, and my upside-down self streaks off to lead his own adventures.
Further downstream the bridge makes a running jump over the canal and freezes in mid-air, over that goddamned moon bouncing like a puppy’s tongue.
The moon is a cursed coin I trade for coffee, to a sharky clerk who grins too wide.
I look up and away, into myself.
My eyes rearrange themselves again.
Level after level of streets stack themselves teetering, plazas and alleys spiraling around impossibly, with partiers staggering up zigzag stairs at ninety-degree angles to each other. Gargantuan bridges fork off in all directions. A train car with motionless silhouettes floats above an empty parking lot, all thoughts inside frozen into a solid block.
On a concrete ledge I gather a handful of dust whiskery and hostile with micronized glass. From my hand crumble cities, flinging out streetlamps and traffic signs as they sparkle down into the water.
Along the river, the buildings look like fortresses dedicated to various ideologies: there’s a jumble of beer-umbrellaed verandas, a clean crystal helmet for sterile business thoughts, and a dated ultramodern experiment resembling a tumorous potato with blinking eyes.
One building in particular stands out, a collaged chaos of styles that doesn’t quite hang together, all its variously shaped windows loudly lit, and its front doors wide open despite the evil cold and late hour.
Its sign says only THE MUSEUM.
I climb the museum’s stairs, turning to gaze out.
Further down the river, elephantine trees trumpet and stampede.
A rusty Ferris wheel turns, creaking, under the wind’s transparent hand.
Seen from afar, the city districts are englassed by smooth golden sodium domes that resemble the foreheads and cheeks of the skull of no animal.
All over the globe, city-filled skulls direct their questioning gazes into the roomy, sunlit interstellar spaces.
The stars are opening their mouths to answer.
Yeah… I think it’s time to go inside.
There’s no one around, which makes sense once I see what’s hung on the milky walls: oil paintings, in modest wooden frames, of people from my life and landscapes I’ve traveled through—
A sort of greatest hits of my memories.
From afar the details stand out with dazzling clarity, realer than life.
But as I draw near, the images splinter into spiraling thickets that refuse to resolve into any single form, their realism dissolving into noise.
Next is an artifact room with all my lifetime’s major possessions.
Then come interconnected exhibits modeled on my apartments—true-to-life rooms complete with old shirts, pages of my handwriting, and windows on high-quality print-outs of the proper view.
In bluish aquarium light, I wander through galleries of enormous phosphorescent wax dolls with human eyes. One room has all my lovers, another a broad cross-section of ancestors, and a third me at different ages, posed in often embarrassing attitudes.
And here are lucite cages with animals that look and move exactly like my dead pets, and who hop around excitedly and try to speak to me.
I can’t reach them.
Past the cages, a glass elevator with only three buttons: up, down, and possibly a mayday button, bright red and engraved with the screaming face of somebody having a baaaaad trip.
I press the down button.
The elevator descends into a colossal red-lit space with no visible walls.
Below, giant ghosts hustle through each other—everybody from my life, and me a hundred times over.
Except everything’s twisted.
Here I’m always a repulsive sniveling fool.
My family can’t stand me, and my friends mock me behind my back.
Even my pets just scratch and bite and growl.
It’s all so convincing that instantly I can’t imagine anything else.
All my favorite memories—airy, tight gems full of clouds and thumbprints, so alluring they mesmerized—were conceited delusions.
But isn’t it better to perceive the reality?
The truth is an ugly angel.
The elevator plunges through the floor into a hangar-sized replica of my bedroom, with massive versions of the ceiling-spanning zebra-cloth, the deer skull, and all my books.
On the bed, a gargantuan duplicate of me reclines shirtless, soft from sloth and pale as ham; I’m holding up the cast-imprisoned arm and squinting stone-faced at the paralyzed thumb and forefinger, trying to force them to meet.
With the other hand I scratch at my beard, where scaly red paramecium crawl and breed:
The command, inscribed in my DNA, to repair skin that isn’t broken.
Broke-winged, scarlet and peeling, I am slowly boiling in my own inflammation.
The disease coats my insides: it forms scales over my eyes.
My body, inside and out, is the color of hell.
The room below is a colossal replica of an operating theater, with an ensemble of medical personnel clustered around me supine on a table, my eyes open but sedatively deadened, and the silenced arm stretched out and subject to the magic-markerings of a masked man with round spectacles of frosted glass.
Up in the elevator, every muscle I have puckers, and the broken wrist twitches with horrible half-life, like a mind shuddering up out of oblivion.
But something ain’t right.
Why are the surgeons and nurses wearing full-face masks of white latex?
Only their eyes are exposed, with white pupils and black irises that grow and shrink dramatically in reaction to the red radiance pouring off my face.
While a nurse manipulates a round black vacuum to suck away the excess red light, the round-spectacled surgeon dawdles with his prolonged fingers over a tray of nightmarish tools till he reaches a rusty boxcutter.
He strokes its blade lovingly.
Then he snatches it up and starts hacking at my arm with rough jerks and impatient grunts, as if it were a parcel from his home planet.
My arm flowers open meatily and sticks out a tongue of bone.
The bone he deftly tugs out and replaces with a hard-plastic tube.
The tube noses up into my armpit, its wet nostril snuffling deep into my chest.
Into the tube’s other end, the surgeon tweezes finger-sized, sterile-looking white insects.
Just as the elevator sinks into the floor, I see my eviscerated arm flap down limply from the table, and its innards look like urban infrastructure, with layers of earth and concrete, cables and pipes.
The room below contains a shot of the accident, the bike slipping sideways, my terrified face frozen over the pavement, the left arm flung out ahead of my body at a steep angle to the concrete.
I don’t look for long.
The exhibits continue backward through my life. Some rooms have entire streets from Berlin, others only have massive close-up of my face reacting, the elevator sliding down my own cliff-size cheek.
In the time before the accident I wasn’t happy either.
In one room my own enormous skull, cross-sectioned, shows the brain as an eye glancing around frantically. In another my replica astrally projects himself over his own shoulder to rant advice and hiss insults.
Again and again I smack myself in the face and curse.
I write and erase, write and erase.
The paper rips.
Then we reach my twenties, and the omniprescent figure of my wife.
Sometimes she is three times my size, clutching her head and babbling as I hold her and calmly talk. More often she’s tiny, and my imperious replicas treat her with cold contempt.
She’s swollen to fill the entire room and I’m fighting for air in a corner.
Or she’s curled up on the bed, I have a face like a meat grinder and I’m chewing up her hands.
Side by side without body heat, we look in different directions, our faces like tins someone tried and failed to open.
But as we pass backward through cities, apartments, jobs, we begin to thaw, to draw together. Our sleeping forms migrate toward each other. We sketch on the same piece of paper. The sun flies up like a tossed orange while we lie embracing in sleep. Here I am singing one of our favorite songs to her in my ungodly, merciless voice. Holding hands we talk while cities rise and fall on all sides. Letters flap through the air between us.
I hold her face. I whisper to her. I brush her hair back tenderly behind her ears.
Finally there are dozens of rooms dedicated to the first two weeks of our real relationship, her just out of the hospital, barely making it over the border, half-dead on my doorstep on the mountain.
Our hundred-hour conversation in each other’s arms.
For the first time in all the scenes, the essential redness fades from my skin, the muscles unclench, and here, at the beginning, it really does look as if I might escape my own inflamed unhappiness, down into a hidden internal corridor, into the describable light of an entirely new way of being.
She’s standing by her suitcases, dressed in all black, and so young.
Then she’s gone, and I’m folded back into my own private flames, scratching obsessively, washing dishes in fry restaurants and at night filling notebooks with hilariously bad bullshit, in public thumping my rubber chest and rambling loudly, bullying my friends with books I hadn’t actually read.
Scenes of university and school take over. My enormous form slumps at a schooldesk over a hidden book, taking up most of the room, so that only the elbows and arms of other students half-emerge from the distant walls.
Quickly shrinking back through the years, squirming under varying bowl cuts and hair colors, I don’t essentially change, always refusing to listen and responding with the insolence of supreme contempt.
Nothing that bad ever happens, yet I’m always miserable.
All the way back in kindergarten, I hide with head in hands for two days straight, crying, refusing to talk or interact, having re-invented non-violent resistance in the hopes of getting out of being educated.
I’d raged when I found out about school.
Why force me out of my privacy to spend time around kids who would only make fun of me, learning shit I didn’t care about?
I’d show them. I’d never give in.
I’d always hold myself apart.
Those feelings never left.
I clutched them tightly.
School was a prison.
Work prison after prison.
And then would come the final prison.
The blank and endless one.
Four years old, I watch my mother double-check all the windows, having moved to the boondocks because of her obsessive fear of child abduction, only to find herself single, broke, with three young children, amid yokels who regarded her accent with suspicion.
Then my father appears.
It’s an outdoor scene with fake sunlight.
My mother is crying on the steps.
His pick-up is filled with boxes.
Dad’s crouching and talking to me.
He manages to sound both sweet and enraged.
He’s telling me I’m man of the house now.
That I have to be tough, and never let anyone get the better of me.
I’m red-nosed and crying. I don’t understand what’s happening.
Dad’s telling me it’s okay to cry in front of him—
But that if I’m ever weak in front of others, they’d make fun of me, and I’d be everyone’s dog.
I wish I could be around, he says, to teach you how to fight.
After that the scenes grow indistinct.
The people deform into bobbleheads with caricatured expressions, then blotches of color blaring nonsense.
The elevator finally halts in reddish darkness.
Far below, half-obscured, is a sort of hilly, bulbous landscape.
Rocking gently, the landscape slowly drifts up through dark currents, gradually resolving into an enormous fetus with eyeballs like white orbs wrapped in cloth, its umbilical cord noosed around its neck…
The elevator doors don’t open. Pressing the down button does nothing, and the scream-embossed button makes me uneasy.
There’s no way to go but back up.
The return trip is much quicker.
The elevator rockets up through thirty years, through the hellish hangar of spectral anti-people, the ground level, and past, bursting into a vast, airy room, prodigiously sunlit, with sweeping cloud formations under a stone roof.
Here all the people from my life have been transfigured into mystical, prismatic versions, like my life cast in 3D stained-glass windows.
But I only get a brief, aching glance before the elevator passes through the ceiling and divides into thousands of elevators, then millions, then billions, with my mind splitting along with it into a billion minds as the branching elevators pass through all the possible lives I could lead, weaving a massive braid of realities like the myriad-stranded DNA of a higher-dimensional self.
One by one the separate elevators with their separate selves hurtle into black, until the only one left follows my last self alive in a timeline where I contract a terminal illness and volunteer for experiments that transfer my consciousness into a computer.
This self survives thousands of years and ends up venturing into deep space, outfitted as a sort of sentient spaceship, and heading toward an alien beacon repeating an incomprehensible message.
For millions of years I journey through dusty emptiness.
Only a few galaxies from the beacon, I’m ambushed by a swirling metal being that emerges from the sun.
The elevator door opens on the museum roof.
All the galaxy, a half-stirred sauce of diamonds, spirals around me.
The moon is huge, as big as an eye peering in a jar at an ant.
To either side Mars and Venus are red and green apples of discord, so bright their brightness is a noise.
Far below glint the dwarfy lights of the city, like fire in mud.
But the roof isn’t empty.
There’s a strange one-story construction that looks cut out from a larger building, with its wires and pipes neatly sliced.
It has a single tall window.
I soft-shoe over and peer in.
Inside is my kitchen.
There’s a double of me slouched with crossed arms at my desk, sullenly staring at an empty page.
But he’s not quite me.
In fact, he’s not even human.
He’s a glass-skulled lizardman with an itchy purple brain.
Suddenly he shifts and meets my gaze.
He has bitter red evil eyes.
I’m already backing away in horror.
I sprint into the elevator and jam the down button. Nothing happens.
Holding my breath, weirdly nervous, I hit the screaming red mayday button.
Behind me a disembodied door blasts open.
My lizard double appears, brandishing the only sharp knife I own—a toothy breadknife.
He hisses what sounds like a question.
I put up both hands in surrender and start apologizing, stepping out toward him.
The elevator door snicks closed behind me.
He screams something garbled and begins advancing on me.
With every step he takes, I take one back.
Why am I like this?
Why do I always do this to myself?
Behind me, a 100,000-foot drop to earth.
In front of me, my reptile self jabbering and flourishing a breadknife, bent on murdering me.
But I’ve never seen anyone so feverish, so angry and confused.
He looks like he’s about to cry. Even the knife tip is trembling.
So I take a deep breath. I relax my face, my throat, my shoulders.
I open my eyes wide and show him my palms.
“It’s okay,” I say gently, and take a step forward.
He shrieks and waves the knife, but doesn’t move.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I whisper.
Already more human, he stares bewildered at me. The knife tip drifts down.
“You don’t have to be afraid.”
I watch my face twist off his body, shake loose from its roots, and billow skyward on a cauliflower of steam.
My face falls up, fluttering ribbons, a jellyfish flying to nirvana.